The Swartberg Pass, Western Cape
Did you know?
The Swartberg Pass was Thomas Bain's last assignment and his greatest achievement.
The natural divide between the plains of the Great Karoo and the lush valleys of the Little Karoo has always been the imposing Swartberg Mountains. There was a time when these crags were impossible to breach, and people had to take circuitous routes to get to their destinations.
Thus a road between Oudtshoorn and the village of Prince Albert became one of the first mountain pass projects through the Swartberg.
Initially, the tender for the Swartberg Pass was awarded to one John Tassie. But the mountain beat him, and he could only build 6km of road before going bankrupt.
Enter Thomas Bain, an extraordinary road engineer dubbed ‘The Man with Theodolite Eyes'. By now he had built 16 of the country's most challenging mountain passes. He had learnt his craft from his father, Andrew Geddes Bain, a brilliant road engineer, palaeontologist, geologist and explorer.
Thomas Bain worked with 200 convicts and a lot of gunpowder. He finished the Swartberg Pass ahead of time and under-budget. The real story of his exploits lies, however, in the fact that even today, more than 120 years after it was built, the Swartberg Pass still stands strong.
The magic of this pass really hits you during the river crossings, when you see the parapets of Cape Fold rock. More than 120 million years ago, the tectonic shifting of the earth caused these rocks to fold and thrust in on themselves, eventually taking on the appearance of flaky pastry.
There has never been a need to tar this marvellous road. In fact, the locals are dead against it. The Swartberg Pass has extremely low accident levels, for which most credit Bain and his ‘Theodolite Eyes'.
For any visitor to this region, a trip over the Swartberg Pass with its dizzying switchbacks is an unforgettable experience.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Western Cape Tourism Authority
Tel: +27 (0)21 487 8600
How to get here
The closest airport is in George. Take a car from there to Oudsthoorn (and relish the Outeniqua Pass on the way) and then over the Swartberg Pass to Prince Albert.
Best time to visit
Any time is good, but ask for local information after heavy rain when the pass can be difficult.
Tours to do
Visit the Cango Caves in the foothills of the Swartberg. It's one of the best show caves in the world.
The delight is in driving this challenging, beautifully cambered road, with exquisite scenery. There are various stopping points along the way where you can enjoy the magnificent views.
Length of stay
You could easily spend a week exploring the Little and Great Karoo.
What to pack
The Karoo region of South Africa is generally sunny all year round, warm to hot in the summers but can get chilly at night in winter.
Where to stay
There's nowhere to stay on the pass, but both Prince Albert and Oudtshoorn have a range of accommodation options.
What to eat
Don't miss the excellent cheese and dried figs at Gay's Dairy in Prince Albert. In Oudsthoorn, ostrich biltong is a must.
Prince Albert hosts an Olive Festival in April and May. Oudsthoorn hosts the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival over Easter, showcasing Afrikaans culture and music.